High time expats kicked their stereotyping habit

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A family rides on a motorcycle past Bitexco Group's Bitexco Financial Tower, rear, in Ho Chi Minh City in January. "None of the Vietnamese know how to drive!" is a common stereotype among the expats who live here in Vietnam.

Have you ever wondered about the make-up of Vietweek readers? One would suppose that the majority are expatriates with a few tourists from English-speaking countries plus some Vietnamese who wish to practice their English reading and comprehension skills. It would probably be difficult to stereotype the typical reader.

It would not be difficult to agree that it would also be decidedly unfair to resort to stereotyping under all but the most limited circumstances, right? But don't we all do it? My favorite subjects for the fine art of stereotyping are American Tea Party Conservatives for whom I have unlimited disdain, but then that's perfectly understandable because we all know they are despicable Neanderthals, but I digress from my point. Don't stereotype!

Throughout history there has been stereotypical images developed about many peoples, religions and cultures. People have always sought a basis to justify their low opinion and often mistreatment of others whom they hold inferior.

Among expats, I find a tendency for stereotyping the Vietnamese. If you are part of the expat population and have been living here for any length of time I'm sure you are aware of it. Do you practice it?

A collection to start with: "All Vietnamese women are looking for a rich expat to take them to (the US, for instance)." Or "none of the Vietnamese know how to drive!" "The Vietnamese have terrible manners!" "All Vietnamese men treat their wives badly, that's why the women want Western husbands." "Doing business with a Vietnamese is a bad idea because they will cheat you." "If you are married to a Vietnamese woman, you will always be told by her what to do." "All products made in Vietnam are of substandard quality."

I have seen this tendency on the part of some expats, and these are not just newcomers, but those who have been here for some years, and such stereotyping is frequently heard in bar and coffee house conversations. Let's examine a few of them a little more closely.

"All Vietnamese women are looking for a rich expat to take them to (the US, for instance)." I usually hear this from men whose knowledge of Vietnamese women is limited to those they have met in bars or who have even approached them on the street and asked: "if they want company."

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As with all stereotypes there are usually plenty of examples of the described behavior to enable the speaker to use one as an example for their opinion that this is true in all cases. There are undoubtedly young women who have had friends that have been taken to the US or France and want to emulate them. But the truth is that in my own case and that of most of my friends the women we've married want to stay right here in Vietnam. My wife has gotten her "green card" because a US passport makes international travel much easier but we can't figure out how we can spend the time in the States that is necessary for naturalization so she will most likely let it expire.

If you plan to make your home here, have the situation clear in the beginning and don't promise something you won't want to do later.

"None of the Vietnamese know how to drive!" This is an easy one to relate to. When I first began to drive a motorbike in Nha Trang some nine years ago I couldn't figure out what was going on. It seemed like chaos but gradually I became aware that there was a pattern to the "chaos" that made a strange kind of sense given the diversity of vehicles in use at all times; bicycles, cyclos, motorbikes, motorcycles (no they aren't the same), cars, buses and trucks of all sizes. They are all trying to fit into the same traffic flow.

Many expatriates have written to Vietweek concurring that despite the problems they face in Vietnam, it is simply not acceptable that people direct their anger and slurs at all Vietnamese. This forum, "Your two cents", opens the floor for you, the expats, to hold forth on the changes you see in Vietnam: what disappoints, what pleases and what you would like to see happen. Email your thoughts to editor@thanhniennews.com. We reserve the right to edit your submissions for reasons of space and clarity.

New Year's in America is an ejaculation of emotion relegated to the last sixth of the final minute of the last day in December, in which grand plans are either executed or spent in somber disappointment. It's a time to get wasted and fornicate with strangers. No matter how extravagant your New Year's plans may be, they won't start until 10 or 11 p.m. and will be done before dawn. The acknowledgement that another 365 days have come and gone is reduced to a handful of blind drunk hours and that's if things go well.  The next day is nothing more than one giant communal hangover, American football on TV, the lethargic mood obscured by the loom of resolutions to abstain from all your favorite things.

Liturgically speaking, believe it or not, New Year's Day marked "The Feast of the Circumcision of Christ," and according to Wikipedia, is still

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Over the years I have observed that the majority of the drivers I've encountered have been careful (sometimes too careful) and polite. True, even the good ones are apt to leave a turn signal blinking leaving you to wonder what their plan really is and neglecting to turn lights on at night is a real hazard. But overall, it is a minority of leadfooted horn blowers that give all local drivers a bad name. And cause most of the accidents! Especially the rich young kids on the illegally powerful racing motorcycles that give no quarter in their rush to get to where their going so they can drink their coffee or beer for a minute longer! (Oops, was that a stereotype? I hope not!).

"All Vietnamese men treat their wives badly, that's why the women want Western husbands." As anyone old enough to travel out of their own country without adult supervision should be able to see, it is true of all societies that SOME men treat their wives badly, and the existence of different social classes, different levels of education and different strata of wealth is not a singularly Vietnamese phenomenon either. 

"Doing business with a Vietnamese is a bad idea because they will cheat you." Another very common remark one frequently overhears. The speaker will have had a bad experience or "knows someone" who did. That doesn't make it a given here any more than elsewhere. I had a partner in the US who borrowed money and then declared bankruptcy. Didn't sour me on doing business, just made me a lot more careful. If you want to go into business here, I think you still need a Vietnamese partner, so pick one very carefully as you would anywhere.

A similar remark is often heard regarding vendors and small shop owners but people who do business like that will usually not last long. Unfortunately, if you're a person spending a short time here you may just get a bad one. Ask for recommendations before you buy some clothes or even choosing where to eat. Some places have been in business for years, even generations. They must be treating their customers right.

Whatever the stereotype, the same message applies. Be fair, don't jump to conclusions, don't expect things to be as they are where you came from. After all, that's why you travel, to experience new things, not to change them to suit your expectations. Enjoy the difference!

One final note: Over the past several weeks there has been a great deal of newsprint in Vietnamese papers regarding a story published by the Pulitzer prize winning author and journalism professor Joel Brinkley, who published a story in the Tribune News Service after a trip to Vietnam in which he stated that there were no dogs or cats to be seen because the Vietnamese had eaten them all. There have been detailed rebuttals, including one by frequent Vietweek contributor, Calvin Godfrey, but it deserves comment in the context of this piece because it represents the very worst type of stereotyping. Maliciously (and for no apparent reason), Brinkley maligns an entire population with a blatant lie.

It is encouraging than nearly two thousand signatures were collected to demand his resignation or dismissal from Stanford. It wont and shouldn't happen, but it may give him a little something to think about.

The important lesson here is that stereotyping is harmful whether that's the intention or not. Examine your own feelings and try to eliminate the tendency to pass stereotypes along. Become part of the solution, not the problem!

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By Bob Michaels
*The writer is an American expat who lives and works in Hanoi

(The story can be found in the March 1st issue of our print edition, Vietweek)

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